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Looking back: the path was different, but it all matters

SELFRIDGE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mich. -- Well, it's finally here. The day I've worked almost 40 years to get to.  And now that it's here, I have mixed feelings about it.  On one hand, I'm overjoyed to be able to get up every day and do what I want rather than climbing into the car for my 45 minute ride to go to work every day.  But on the other hand, I know I will miss the people.  I have worked with some great people over the years, and I've been doing a lot of reminiscing lately, thinking back to what has changed from the time I joined the Air Force to now.

I joined in 1975.  It was a much different world back then.  This was during the Cold War, and how we were inducted into the service was different from what they do now.  My memory of Basic Training was that we did a lot of cleaning and polishing, and in between, we did PT and attended some classes.  Somewhere near the end of the six weeks, we got to do the obstacle course, and fire the M-16.

The focus back then was on breaking you down and building you back up again, teaching you the Air Force way.  One of the ways they did this was by forcing you to keep your area in pristine condition.  They would look for scuff marks on the floor and have you work until the floor literally shined.  And then, they would look at your locker, your boots, etc., and if they found something slightly amiss, you would have to fix it.  If you were too far out of regs, they would pull a 341.  And if you really screwed up, you got sent down to the bowels of the squadron, and had to report to the orderly room.  This was their way of teaching you how things had to get done the Air Force way.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Lackland AFB and get a taste of what Basic Military Training is like now.  The one big difference is what they focus on.  They still attend classes, do PT, and get to do the obstacle course, but they do not get dinged for having a few scuffs on the floor.  Don't get me wrong, the dorm room was clean, neat, and in good order, but I was surprised to see that the floor wasn't like it was when I went through Basic.  When I asked the lead MTI about it, he laughed and told me their focus is different.  He explained how the trainees are issued training M-16s, which feel and look like the real thing, except for the color.  They are taught the importance of taking care of it, and how it could save their life.

The trainees are also taught the Wingman concept, and it was visible throughout my visit.  I watched trainees go through the obstacle course, and they did not leave one obstacle until they had a Wingman to go with them to the next one.  They are taught to watch out for each other.  Not a bad skill to practice.

In general, they are taught more of a "Warrior Ethos," an attitude that will serve them well in their military career.  The attitude creates an environment where good people can prosper and survive.  And even though I started out differently from today's Airmen, I have had good mentors who molded me into the person I am today.

As I look back over the years, I think about the things I have learned along the way.  Some things I learned by being taught, but others I learned the hard way.  I learned that everybody has the potential for great things, they just need to be given a chance.  I learned that you can't always be Mr. Nice Guy.  I learned that problems don't go away if you ignore them.  I learned that you can accomplish the mission and take care of your people at the same time.  And I learned to accept what happens after a decision is made.

I've been asked what I would change if I could go back and do it over again, and there isn't much.  The way I look at it, I wouldn't be where I am today, I wouldn't be who I am today, if I hadn't gone down the paths to get here.  Have I made mistakes along the way?  Yes.  Are there things I could have done better?  Yes.  But all in all, I have had a good career.

My final thoughts echo some of the leaders I have known throughout the years.  If you want to be successful, take care of your people.  There are great people all around you.  Sometimes, all they need is to be given a chance.  So give them that chance.